2008 was a good year for Indian cricket. We were able to beat the best team in the world in two different formats of the game. And even though Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble walked into the sunset with their heads held high in this year, the dawn of some enviable talent in the form of Ishant Sharma and Rohit Sharma gives a bullish outlook to our cricketing fortunes in the coming year.
The year started off with much hope, only to turn to utter despair as the events at the Syndey test took a fractious turn. India's reply, thankfully through their cricketing skill, was fitting to say the least - with some brilliant seam and swing bowling that reduced the mighty Australian batting line up to a state of ruin. Adelaide was another run fest for both teams, resulting in a draw, thereby allowing the Australians to continue their hold on the Border Gavaskar Trophy, but with India emerging victorious at least on moral grounds.
The Commonwealth Bank tri-series in its final edition saw some competitive match ups, with India managing to qualify for the finals ahead of Sri Lanka, without any of the last minute run rate oriented blushes. The finals were a Sashinating (read fascinating) experience as it was on the back of some inspiring knocks from Tendulkar, that India managed to win its first ever tri series tourney down under. Rohit Sharma in the first final and Praveen Kumar in the second final played their character roles to perfection, as Harbhajan Singh served out poetic justice by playing a hand in the dismissals of Mathew Hayden and Andrew Symonds in both games at crucial junctures. Full credit to Mahender Singh Dhoni for marshalling India to one of its finest one day series wins ever.
The series at home against South Africa lived up to the pre series hype. The first test at Chennai threatened to be a dampener as runs were scored by the dozen on a featherbed of a wicket. Sehwag dazzled with his less than a run a ball 319, but other than serve as a statistical treat, there was little the knock could do from the point of view of forcing a result. The next two tests played to both teams strengths - with Dale Steyn knocking over the Indian batsmen like nine pins on a fast paced Motera wicket in Ahmedabad and Harbhajan Singh leaving the South Africans bamboozled courtesy a rank turner at Green Park in Kanpur. On the whole, South Africa earned the psychological edge having drawn the series at 'The Final Frontier'.
Nest stop for the Indians were a couple of lack luster one day tournaments, played with their neighbours – the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup. Unfortunately for the Men in Blue, in spite of dominating both tournaments in the league stages, Pakistan managed to keep its nose ahead in the final of the Kitply Cup while Sri Lanka delivered a knockout blow in the finals of the Asia Cup with an unorthodox spell of spin bowling from newcomer Ajantha Mendis (figures of 6 for 13) leaving the Indians in disarray.
The defeat in the Asia Cup finals set the perfect stage for India's test series with the Lankans in Sri Lanka. On the eve of the series, Dhoni's decision to withdraw from the series, citing the hectic international schedule ahead, added a bit of controversy. Also the ICC's decision to introduce the third umpire-player referral system added a touch of novelty to the series. At the end of it all though, the potent combination of 'M&M
' (read Murali and Mendis) proved to be India's undoing as they lost the test series 2-1. The much vaunted Indian batting line had no answer to some high quality spin and other than for a double century from Sehwag in the second test, there was little the Indians did to prove themselves worthy competitors.
Given India's poor results in the test series, it was widely regarded that they would surrender the ODI's as well without too much of a fight, but with the return of the inspirational Dhoni at the helm of affairs, India managed to turn the tide decisively. They won the best of five series with one game to spare and played Ajantha Mendis with so much confidence that it was appalling to compare their initial travails against him in the tests. Dhoni's captaincy came in for much praise once again and his form with the bat ensured that he claimed the top spot in the ICC ODI batsman rankings.
And so after a brief hiatus the battle with Australia resumed, this time at home, over the course of a four test series. Ricky Ponting promised a brand of new age cricket that would leave the Indians spellbound. It seemed apocryphal as Ponting scored his first test century in India in the first test at Bangalore and the Indian batting seemed intent on self destruction. Yet a spirited partnership between 'Zaks
' and 'Bhajji
' paved the way for an Indian comeback and one from which the Indians never really looked back.
After the draw at Bangalore, they delivered the first punch with a thumping win at Mohali. A draw at Delhi came as an anticlimax, even as Anil Kumble announced his retirement at this very ground, which served as home away from home for him for many years. The final test at Nagpur was Ganguly's swansong and for a brief duration in the game, the Australians threatened to play spoilsport, but some inexplicable captaincy on the part of 'Punter
' ensured that the Border Gavaskar Trophy made its way back to Indian shores after four long years. India had won the series 2-0 and Ponting admitted in no uncertain terms of his team leaving India with their tails between their legs.
With Kumble gone, Dhoni's elevation to captaincy in tests was celebrated in style, as the Indians took an impregnable lead of 5-0 against the visiting English side in the ODI's. Had the Mumbai terror attack not cancelled the remainder of an immensely lop sided series, the English might have had to deal with the embarrassment of a 7-0 whitewash.
Full marks then to Kevin Pietersen and co. for coming right back to India, in the aftermath of the horrors at Mumbai and immediately providing a cracker of a contest at Chennai. Victory was theirs for the taking after three and a half days of riveting test cricket, but a blitzkrieg by Sehwag, followed by a spirited partnership between Sachin and Yuvraj in the second innings meant that India chased down a daunting target of 387 runs with six wickets to spare. The second test at Mohali was yet another dull affair, but with some joy for Rahul Dravid, who courted form once again with a dour test century and his partnership with Gambhir in the first innings ensured that England were shut out of the series for good.
Full credit must be given to Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, for having played a large hand in most of India's victories this year. They threatened the best of batsmen on benign wickets, both at home and away. Also the emergence of Gambhir and Sehwag as a quality opening pair lays the foundation for many more memorable Indian wins in the years to come. The coming of Amit Mishra as a quality leg spinner in test cricket and Praveen Kumar as a wicket taking bowler in one day cricket gives captain Dhoni some more cards up his sleeve. And with India playing a much younger side now more regularly in the shorter formats of the game, the ground fielding stands vastly improved vis-à-vis a decade ago. Gary Kirsten must also be appreciated for his behind the scenes work and he and Dhoni look set to forge another successful partnership like the Ganguly – Wright combine. Let's hope then that 2009 is not a case of two steps forward and three steps backward, for a team threatening to make the summit in all formats of the game.